Controlling African swine fever becomes international effort

At a time of frosty diplomatic relations and continued trade disputes, the world’s top animal health experts, industry and governments are banding together to fight a deadly hog virus.

More than 150 officials from some 15 countries descended on Ottawa at the end of April for a global forum on African swine fever.

Their goal: to share information, learn from countries already grappling with the deadly virus and develop a broader prevention plan going forward.

The forum was co-chaired by Canada and the United States. Among the attendees were officials from China, Mexico, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Animal Health Organization (OIE).

ASF does not pose a threat to human health or food safety, but the virus, which is spread by direct and indirect contact, is lethal for pigs. The virus, which causes internal bleeding and fever in hogs, has a death rate of up to 90 percent.

There is no vaccine or cure for the virus.

No cases of ASF have been reported in the Americas, including Canada and the U.S.

Officials want to keep it that way.

But containing the virus, which has ravaged domestic and wild herds around the world, is no easy task. Cases have been found in several African countries, China, Vietnam, North Korea and parts of Europe.

ASF is a complex virus, with a changing nature that makes it hard to develop a vaccine.

It is not an airborne disease, like avian influenza, but a thimbleful of the virus is enough to cause major disarray.

The best defence, experts say, is biosecurity: at Canadian airports, on the farm and beyond.

Canada’s hog industry is aware of the threat. In his remarks to forum attendees, Rick Bergmann, chair of the Canadian Pork Council, said an outbreak in Canada would be “catastrophic.”

But the pork industry itself is only one piece of the prevention puzzle. Everyone has a role to play.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canada Border Services Agency have been telling passengers to leave their pork at home for months.

Signs have been posted at airports. Fines have been levied. Under Canadian rules, agents can levy a fine of up to $1,300. Feed import restrictions have also been put in place.

The federal government has promised millions in funding to boost Canada’s crew of detector dog teams. Social media campaigns have been launched to try and raise awareness about the virus.

Federal officials, including Canada’s chief veterinarian, say the efforts are making a difference and awareness is being raised. Still, all involved agree there remains more work to do.

Meanwhile, border agents across Canada and the U.S. continue to seize illicit meat imports, including deli meats that can also preserve the virus.

All involved agree Canada and other countries cannot ease up on their efforts.

Attendees at the forum have agreed to a broad framework with 16 focus areas. Officials from the Americas have also decided to form a working group similar to one already in place among Asian nations to better co-ordinate their responses.

More meetings are set for the coming weeks and months.

The ASF outbreak is also expected to be discussed at the upcoming G20 agriculture ministers meeting in Japan later this month.

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